Late to the Game: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
In celebration of the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain this September, we’re focusing our attention on the Metal Gear Solid series by looking back on the series’ third installment, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, originally released for PS2 in 2004. We’ll be chronicling the main installments of the series periodically catching up to The Phantom Pain‘s release in September.
For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can check out our impressions of Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, while reading below for our take on Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater…
From the classic brassy opening of its “Snake Eater” theme to an opening that could come straight from a 1960s Bond movie, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater arrived with style and a whole new take on the world of Metal Gear when it first released in 2004. 11 years later, I’ve finally played through it and come out of its Russian jungle not only alive, but enraptured at easily my favorite installment of the series yet.
As the first game chronologically in the series, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater takes players back to where it all began as Naked Snake (soon to be known as the infamous “Big Boss”) heads deep into the jungles of Tselinoyarsk to rescue the Soviet scientists Sokolov and uncover conspiracies surrounding a new nuclear-capable tank called “the Shagohod.” In turn, Snake’s mission spirals into a web of danger from the likes of the electrifying Colonel Volgin and Snake’s mentor, The Boss.
(Video courtesy of “Renan Mattos” on YouTube.)
Compared to the often convoluted narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater unfolds in a bit more of a straightforward way, though its stature as the prequel to the remainder of the series set up plenty of avenues for me to experience the Metal Gear saga in a new way. From the complex relationship between Snake and The Boss to his first encounters with his soon-to-be nemesis Ocelot, Snake Eater expanded my views of this world and characters in an enlightening and satisfying way, combined with the numerous gameplay changes Snake Eater brought to the table by placing the series in the confines of the Russian wilderness.
Jumping from Sons of Liberty to Snake Eater brought me into a quite different Metal Gear Solid experience, with Snake Eater‘s jungle environment easily bringing the series’ biggest gameplay changes while also becoming one of the highlights of its prequel chapter. Where previous Metal Gear Solid titles had you sneaking through hallways and more contained urban environments, the sprawling jungles of Snake Eater are an entirely different beast that present not only significant new challenges to overcome, but just as many new tactics and combat strategies.
Notably, Snake Eater introduces a more varied menu system in Snake’s arsenal, allowing him to don different camouflage face paints and uniforms to blend into the environment, and in some cases, sneak into areas without alerting guards by wearing specific clothing. Given the harsher environment this time around, Snake Eater also implemented its “Food” and “Cure” menus, requiring Snake to constantly be on the hunt for food (including yes, snakes, rats, frogs, etc.) and also monitoring his health by stitching up bullet wounds, curing poisonous injuries, and mending broken bones.
While ahead of time I had known of Snake Eater‘s focus on survival and its new environment, the implementation of these new mechanics at first seemed like a daunting (and tedious) task jumping into the game at first, especially at the idea of having to micro-manage Snake’s health and condition on top of worrying about enemies in the environment. That all was swept away only a few minutes later, as instead I was invested in the game’s reliance on survival and more importantly, using that to make Snake Eater a more strategic, precise Metal Gear experience.
Where in previous Metal Gear games I could raise alarms and still find ways to escape (relatively) unscathed, Snake Eater‘s environment and gameplay mechanics made that more of a challenge. Instead, even a brief skirmish with enemy guards could have lasting consequences with bullet wounds and broken bones causing lasting damage on Snake. Where I might have been a bit more on the aggressive side in past Metal Gear titles, Snake Eater made me reconsider my play style and make every decision count, whether they were right or wrong.
That reliance on a more considerate approach to Snake’s environment even bled into the game’s numerous boss fights, with Snake Eater shining in many of its boss encounters as Metal Gear always has. From playing a game of cat-and-mouse against The Fury or embarking on supernatural twists against The Sorrow, Snake Eater‘s boss encounters were varied and always throwing in a new challenge, perhaps best exemplified by one of my personal highlights of the title, the midway point boss fight against The End.
As Snake encounters The End, an elderly sniper known for his supreme camouflage skills and unprecedented sharpshooting, players are thrown into a boss fight that I really can’t say I’ve experience anywhere else. Taking place over a large swatch of the Tselinoyarsk jungle, the boss fight challenges players to track The End through sections of the forest with whatever means possible, leading to so many ways I could have approached the fight.
While my approach was tracking his footsteps with the thermal goggles and (mostly) succeeding in getting behind him for a clean shot, virtually every tool at Snake’s arsenal could be used in taking him down. Even as the fight took me maybe around an hour or more to complete, fighting against The End not only succeeded as a thrilling and wild boss fight, but also in making the player truly feel resourceful and smart – like the tracker that Snake should be in an environment like this.
Right from the very beginning, Snake Eater wears its influences on its sleeve as a Cold War-era thriller that could easily stand alongside early James Bond films, as Snake’s mission to uncover a devastating nuclear threat takes you to an era of “us” and “them” in a conflict between the US and Russia. While previous Metal Gear Solid games always had their own flair for the cinematic, Snake Eater perhaps demonstrates this the best in its painstakingly-choreographed cutscenes that blend action and drama all at once, whether it’s in the over-the-top motorcycle chase with Snake and EVA or the game’s haunting, painful conclusion.
Though the game still retains some of Metal Gear‘s more wacky inclinations such as the superpowered Volgin and the various members of the Cobra Unit, Metal Gear Solid 3 still imbues a hefty amount of depth and character development from top to bottom in its story, from our first introduction of Snake to the numerous supporting characters. Many of Snake Eater‘s most poignant moments for me were the quieter ones between character-to-character, even among some of the more epic action moments that it has to offer.
In particular, the conflicted relationship between Snake and The Boss drove much of Snake Eater‘s most riveting drama, as Snake found himself forced to consider his mentor as an enemy. With that relationship converging in the game’s devastating finale, it perhaps gave me one of the most tense and purely emotional experiences I’ve seen yet in the Metal Gear series, and yet Snake and The Boss’s story is only one of the many highlights of the title. Even when faced with some of the game’s sillier aspects, such as learning B-movie trivia from Para-Medic or being prompted to stare at EVA’s cleavage, Snake Eater marked a high point of the series’ storytelling for me, and in crafting some of its most memorable, and relatable characters – even when they’re touting the virtues of From Russia With Love or Godzilla.
While I was introduced to Metal Gear Solid a few years ago in my first time playing through the game, Snake Eater truly felt like the title that welcomed me the most into the often bizarre but always compelling world that Hideo Kojima has crafted over nearly three decades. By taking everything back to the beginning, I felt like I was meeting familiar faces again for the first time like Snake and the young Revolver Ocelot, alongside the many new faces it introduced and made me love.
Most of all though, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater marked a bold leap forward in my playthrough of the series and a refreshing, but challenging change of pace. While the jungles of Snake Eater were a big leap from the corridors and tankers of the previous two games, the title still gave me the sneaking and strategy that have made me appreciate even more a series I’ve (regrettably) been playing catch-up on. Hideo Kojima and his company have been outdoing themselves with each Metal Gear Solid after the last, and while my trek through Tselinoyarsk is over, so far it’s the journey of Snake’s that I’ll be aching to go back to – even if it means having to eat a few snakes along the way.